The world of masks and respiratory protection is so complicated that keeping up can feel like a full-time job! Luckily it is our full-time job at Breathe99, and we’ve laid out the basics in this four-part Mask Buying Guide.
This post explains the different types of masks available to you and the pros and cons of each in certain circumstances. The other parts of the Mask Buying Guide can be found here:
Where do you even start?
This year’s pandemic, as well as ongoing seasonal wildfires and pollution, has forced many of us to become first-time mask users. But not all of us have the time or the interest to spend hours googling face mask reviews. Which masks are reusable? What’s a respirator? Why do some masks cost more?
Below is a simple guide that highlights the five most common types of masks. Our goal is to provide a clear picture of your available options so you can determine the appropriate balance of protection, style, cost, and comfort for your unique case.
Cloth Face Mask
Homemade or factory-made cloth masks are very similar to surgical masks in terms of the protection they offer the average person for everyday use against contagious disease. They do not offer an airtight seal or high filtration efficiency, but given what experts now know about how Covid-19 spreads, they are an effective first line of defense against transmission if everyone wears one. There aren’t many other use cases for cloth masks, but during a pandemic they are pretty important!
Cloth masks can be conveniently sewn at home or purchased from virtually all apparel companies. This means lots of choice of style and construction. Just make sure that your cloth mask fits snugly around your face and is made of a densely woven fabric, preferably several layers. Some retail face masks are made of lightweight sponge foam and are a comfortable alternative to cloth that some prefer. Both types of face masks can be laundered and reused, and are typically cheap enough to buy several to have on hand throughout the week.
The main drawback is that cloth masks don’t provide nearly the same protection to the wearer as a respirator. This matters more for vulnerable, elderly, and immunocompromised people or those who are in frequent contact with the public. But no matter who you are, stay away from face masks that are made purely of knit material or fabric with large holes. Unless there is a filter behind it, any material with holes that you can see won’t filter anything!
Pros: Available in a variety of styles and colors, comfortable and lightweight, reusable and low waste.
Cons: Provide little to no filtration of small particulates, fog glasses.
Think those disposable blue masks that your dentist wears, and which you can now buy in boxes at many drugstores. A surgical mask is a rectangular loose-fitting, disposable mask made of synthetic material, usually with ear loops. Its main purpose is to protect the environment (and in medical settings, the patient) from droplets coming out of the mouth and nose of the person wearing it. Surgical masks are FDA-regulated devices, which means the material must pass certain particle filtration performance and protect the wearer from liquids and flames. If it’s not FDA-approved as a surgical mask, then it’s just a face mask, which is not a regulated term.
Surgical masks provide a partial barrier against large respiratory droplets, but because of their open design they are not completely effective against very small droplets. That is to say, if you are in a small room with someone, you are both wearing surgical masks, and they sneeze, their mask will stop the majority of the spray. However if you stay in that room long enough, the smaller aerosols from their sneeze and regular breathing will eventually wander around your mask. This video helps illustrate that.
The price of one surgical mask is low, however they are single use so the cost can add up over time. Another downside is the environmental impact of the waste they create. The UN estimates that 75% of used masks from this pandemic will end up in landfills or floating in the seas.
Pros: Readily available, convenient, low cost.
Cons: Provide little to no protection against small particulates, wasteful, fog glasses.
Disposable Respirators (N95, KN95)
This includes your typical single-use N95 respirator, highly coveted by healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. A respirator is a regulated device that forms a full seal around your mouth or nose, meant to protect the wearer from inhaling dangerous particles. These particles include biological aerosols, dust, smoke, pollution, and allergens. There are different respirator ratings, which you can learn about here, but the most basic is the N95 which filters 95% of all particles larger than 75 nanometers in diameter. The “N” stands for “Not resistant to oil”, which is fine for protection against human droplets, smoke, and dust. An example of when you might need that oil protection is spray painting (see cartridge respirators).
Because the disposable respirator body is made of the filter material, the whole mask must be thrown away when it’s dirty or contaminated. Just like surgical masks, disposable respirators come with a high environmental footprint. N95 respirators are significantly more expensive than surgical masks, not to mention they should be reserved for healthcare professionals during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Apart from N95, there are many classes of respirators for specialized occupational or hobby use, which we won’t go into detail here. For the general public the other classes of respirators are generally overkill. Don’t forget that the more protective a respirator, often the harder it is to breathe through.
Pros: Solid protection, low cost, convenient.
Cons: Largely unavailable due to shortages, wasteful, uncomfortable on face for extended use.
Reusable Facewear (B2 Mask)
This kind of facewear usually comes in the form of a fully-sealed mask with a slim profile, where everything except the filter can be cleaned and reused. More of these styles of mask, including our own B2 Mask, are emerging in the market during the Covid-19 pandemic. However they have been around before, primarily for protection against urban pollution, smoke, and dust. They are sometimes referred to as “premium masks”.
These masks offer similar high protection to disposable respirators, but at a much lower price over time. Most premium masks are not regulated devices, but the filters within them sometimes carry ratings such as PM2.5. Although the B2 Mask is not yet NIOSH or FDA approved, we’ve published our test results in our B2 Filter Technology Review.
The upfront cost of reusable facewear is much higher than a cloth mask or disposable respirator, between $50-$100, however the filter refills are only a few dollars. The filters are typically good for a week or two before being thrown away. If you plan to wear a mask for many months to come, or for seasonal reasons like wildfires or pollution, then it’s worth investing in reusable facewear for better protection and long-term savings.
Pros: Excellent protection, low waste, stylish and modular design, comfortable on face during extended use.
Cons: High initial upfront cost.
Unless you are painting with a sprayer, working with noxious chemicals, or another specialized hazardous situation, a cartridge respirator is probably overkill for you. These are the kind that look like gas masks. Just like a reusable respirator, you wash and reuse the main mask and dispose of the filters when it’s time.
These types of respirators are for heavy-duty protection. They don’t get many points for style or comfort, or cost, and we wouldn’t recommend them to most people. However, because the filters are chunky they can offer more layers that filter things such as gas and vapors.
Due to the shortage of N95 respirators during the Covid-19 pandemic, some healthcare workers wear cartridge respirators. While it may look scary, for them it’s better to go with more protection than less.
Pros: Excellent protection.
Cons: Feature exhaust valves, bulky and inconvenient for daily use.
A note about valves
Many face masks and respirators offer exhalation valves to reduce moisture and humidity inside that mask. In non-pandemic times this is a sensible feature, however not filtering the air you exhale eliminates protection for others from any infection you may be carrying, dramatically reducing the efficacy of mask wearing as a public health measure. This is why masks with a valve have been banned by many airlines, retail stores, and governments.
The mask purchasing decision might hinge on different parameters for each one of us. As Harvard Business Review rightly put it a 'better mask' is one that offers Protection, can be produced at Scale, is Reusable, Stylish and Comfortable.
Ultimately, compliance is a key determinant of mask effectiveness in halting the spread of covid19, so pick the mask you will feel most comfortable wearing. Pick the mask that suits you best but be an informed and conscious consumer not just of masks, but also the information available on facemask wearing. Make sure to think through the downsides/upsides of each, and delve into attributes that make up the "total cost of ownership," including reduction of waste and cost over time.
At Breathe99 we envision a world in which public health goods like facemasks with quality, ergonomic design and low environmental impact are scalable and accessible. We want the best of both worlds: the protection and top-notch filtration efficiency of the N95 along with the reusable nature and style of cloth masks. If that sounds like the right choice, shop here. If not, do not settle or give up -- demand the highest level of protection to keep yourself, the ones you love and our communities Healthy Together.
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